The Reader’s Gazetteer: C

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Thomas Hardy makes it easy.  Casterbridge, Christminster, you’ll find them on the map inside the front of every Wessex novel. And you can lay the map of Wessex down over the map of south-west England and work out how to get to any of these places. At least, you could, if they were real. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t. Hardy calls Wessex “a merely realistic dream country”, or so Wikipedia tells me.

There’s a lot of travelling in Hardy’s books, whether it’s emigrating to Canada or going to market. People come from places and they go to places; they pass through places on their way. And the landscape is vividly described, and feels coherent:

So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.

Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’ – the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

From this, and other passages through the Wessex novels, one might almost be able to put the map together without knowledge of the real-world equivalents or a sight of the map of Dorset and Hampshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Oxfordshire and Devon.

Here are Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard approaching Casterbridge:

‘What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!’ said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. ‘It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.’

Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge – at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs – in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.

From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of cornland and coomb to the distance of a mile or so.

And then we enter the town itself, and the impressionist bird’s-eye view resolves into detail, and the plot gets going. The social geography is slotted into the physical geography; we learn who drinks at which public house. Durnover; the market place; Mixen Lane: Casterbridge is very credible.

I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever been to Dorchester and, if so, whether it looked like that. (Although the narrative explains later that Things Have Changed between the date of the action and the date of writing, so it probably wouldn’t have.) I thought I had, but on reflection I suspect I was thinking of Bridport.

I have, however, definitely been to Oxford. Here’s Jude Fawley’s first sight of Christminster:

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

Even without the map, even without the clue of the name (Oxford’s cathedral – ‘minster’ – doubles as the chapel of Christ’s College) it’s easy to make the connection with the ‘dreaming spires’ of cliché.

How to get there? A little find+replace, together with traveline.info, makes it easy enough. For Casterbridge, take the train direct from London Waterloo (ultimate destination Budmouth); alternatively, go from Paddington and change at Castle Cary or Westbury (again to a train heading for Budmouth). For Christminster, take the direct train from London Marylebone – or go from Paddington again, changing at Aldbrickham this time.

Other Cs on the map of Wessex are Chalk Newton, Chaseborough, Cliff Martin and Cresscombe, but they’re only bit players, mentioned in passing if at all.

You might ask why I’m using Casterbridge and Christminster now, rather than waiting for W for Wessex. The truth is, I’m not really convinced by the whole of Wessex as an entity, even broken up into North and Upper and Mid and South and Outer and Lower, but I can believe in the individual towns and villages, and the landscapes around and between them. Plus, C comes a lot earlier in the alphabet…

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That ammonite came from Charmouth, which does not have a Wessex equivalent, but is the right neck of the woods.

Books referred to in this post

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

and the other Wessex novels

The Reader’s Gazetteer: B

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Of course it has to be Barchester. Other fictional Bs that come to mind are bit-part players: Borduria in Tintin, or Belsornia in the Chalet School series. But Barchester is one of the big ones. In terms of its significance, that is; the whole point of it is that it isn’t exactly a bit city.

Anthony Trollope is a little bit vague about the precise location of Barchester at the beginning of The Warden:

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s all we need to get the story going. In The Warden, it’s the personalities and politics that drive things: the close, the clergy, the councillors.  Trollope shows us a city that’s been minding its own business, getting along quite happily in its own way, sorting out or ignoring its petty troubles and corruptions – until someone comes in from outside and shakes it all up. And ‘outside’ means, of course, ‘London’. John Bold, the reformer, is a Barchester man, but he has been away to London and come back again with ideas:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

In very broad terms, Barchester just has to not be London, and to be influenced by the events and people (Tom Towers, for example) that happen in or come from London. Nothing more than that is necessary, and, broadly speaking, that’s all we get. There is, however, one mention of a London terminal, and that terminal is Paddington.

As we work our way through the series, the location stabilises. We travel further afield around the city of Barchester. The internal geography of Barsetshire emerges, and is sufficiently consistent for the folk at Penguin to have produced the map on the endpapers of the Penguin Classics edition in the photograph. We learn in Framley Parsonage that Exeter exists in this universe, and so can’t be Barchester. Then, in The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames also goes to London, and also arrives at Paddington. That puts Barchester firmly on the Great Western Railway, and certainly rules out Salisbury.

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(These were library copies, and it took me a while to realise that the disintegrating Gothic tracery on the cover of The Warden was down to wear and tear, rather than a comment by the cover designer. One could certainly read some symbolic significance into that…)

In my head Barchester lies south of the Severn rather than on it, but that might just be because I first read The Warden when I was at university in Exeter. Hereford just feels far too far north. The real-life scandal that inspired the plot of The Warden happened, of course, at Winchester: Hiram’s Hospital bears a remarkable similarity to the hospital of St Cross (where, oddly enough, I was baptised rather more than a century later). The reader will notice that Winchester is not mentioned at the beginning of The Warden. Then again, it’s even more hassle to get to from Paddington than Salisbury.

Later in this series I’ll be examining other cathedral cities, and I’ll be speculating just what it is about the West of England that makes it so attractive to the constructors of fictional towns. In the meantime, however, it’s only right to salute Anthony Trollope and the one that, in many ways, started it all.

Books referred to in this post

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

King Ottakar’s Sceptre, Hergé

various Chalet School titles, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

 

New blog series: The Reader’s Gazetteer

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Earlier this week I updated my ‘About’ page to add a little about what visitors can expect to find on this site. I wrote that the blog is largely about ‘other people’s books, travel, and the writing process’.

This blog series is going to deal with two of those things. I’m going to do an abedecedarium – an A to, I hope, Z of fictional places in other people’s books, and speculate as to how one might find them if they were real. Ever since my father read me The Prisoner of Zenda I’ve been fascinated by places that sound as if they might exist, but don’t, by books that convince me that I could take a train or just walk over the border into somewhere that’s only real in the author’s head, and now mine.

How am I going to choose these places? It’s going to come down to these two questions:

Do I believe in the place? Do geography and politics seem plausible?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

I am not going to be fussy about genre. This series will range across detective stories, fanfiction, teen books, thrillers, classics, possibly even the occasional school story. Sci-fi and fantasy are less likely to be included, for obvious reasons: if I need a spaceship to get there, it’s not going in. Portal fantasy is out, as well. With (at time of planning) one honourable exception.

I am restricting myself to textual canons, though I’m throwing in Tintin for old times’ sake. Much as I adore The Merry Widow, you will not find Pontevedro here (or even Marsovia, as the first English translation had it). Nor am I including the deliberately silly. Barataria and Pfennig-Halbfennig would be out anyway under the ‘book canons’ rule, but you also won’t find Norman Hunter’s Kumdown Upwardz, Gadzooks, or Urgburg-under-Ug. (Which is a pity, because it’s a bit of a struggle to find fictional places beginning with U.)

Inevitably, I will miss some places, and it will probably be because I haven’t read their books. If it turns out that one of them is your favourite, I apologise. I’ll be inviting people to add their own recommendations in comments every week.

I’ll be sharing pictures of the books, and maps where they have them, and I’ll be talking about what makes me believe in the place. I’ll probably also wander onto byways involving my own travels in real places, and my own travails coming up with fictional ones.

Want to join me? You’d be very welcome. Grab a toothbrush and your passport, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.